Friday, July 21, 2023

(D&D3e) Oriental Adventures

Writing about a book like this, whose very title I'm reluctant to say too often, raises certain . . . temptations. "Okay, this book has a racist title, a reputation for being racist, and is actually kind of racist, so all I have to do is pull a few racist quotes, wag my finger at them, and avoid saying anything too personally revealing and that's another one in the can."

Right? Like I don't need to have a good opinion of Oriental Adventures (James Wyatt). It's the year 2023. There are better options for East-Asian roleplaying out there, and a notable social consequence to presenting even the appearance of racism, so there's no upside to me praising this book.

And at this point, you may rightfully be wondering if I'm building to a "but." I'm not. Overall, this book was pretty mid. That's true both of its awkward place in early 3e, where design principles are not fully established (why does the blade-dancer prestige class require spellcasting to qualify for? none can say) and its status as an example of the rpg hobby's unfortunate racial baggage.

The best example of this last part is the book's description of sushi, "fish . . . served raw on vinegar-treated rice." I'm not sure that rises to the level of offensive, but also why would you describe it like that?

But (oh, shit), it would be fundamentally dishonest of me to write any kind of critique of this book without making myself personally vulnerable , so here it is: I used to love this fucking thing.

I don't remember the exact order of events, but around the time I got this book, I also saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That was my first exposure to Wuxia as a genre and I was instantly enchanted. I wanted to play something like that in D&D, and at the time, this was as close as I was going to get. Multiple hours of young John's life were spent pondering the exact combination of feats, class features, and spells that would allow me to make a Blade Dancer build equivalent to Li Mu Bai.

And that puts me in a complicated position, culturally. Like maybe I'm trying to argue that my pure and sincere enjoyment of a film by a Taiwanese director somehow exempted young me from being a racist little shit. Of course, there's nothing racist about enjoying a movie. And nothing racist about wanting to play that movie in D&D, but if you're going to talk about the problematic aspects of Orientalism and the way it others people of Asian descent, then yeah, that was part of the appeal for me.

If you'd come to me in late 2001 and said, "you like that stuff because you think it's exotic" I probably would have said, "yes, that's the word I was looking for, exotic. I like it because it feels new to me, like something I haven't seen a million times before." (I may, in fact, have said something almost exactly like this on multiple occasions).

And I don't necessarily want to frame this as a confession, or even a regret. Because sometimes, you're nineteen years old, the internet is barely a thing, and you learn something new. And that new knowledge enriches your life by expanding the horizons of what's possible. I dreamed new dreams because of that movie, and this book helped me bring those dreams to life.

As easy as it would be to label this book naked cultural appropriation (and it is - there's not a single identifiably Asian name on credits page) and therefor A Bad Thing From the Past, fit to be ignored, that's not how I experienced it. My experience of the book was as a stumbling first step into a wider world.

So, of course, my fond memories were immediately betrayed by the first line of the Introduction, an excerpt from the original Oriental Adventures I had previously called out as being notably racist, even by the standards of the book:

"The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West."

Now, to be entirely fair to the book, the introduction immediately walks that back . . . sort of. "Since then, the world has changed - we rarely refer to the countries of Asia as 'the mysterious Orient,' for one thing. . . Fantasy Asia is no more or less exotic and mysterious than any other fantasy.

But, at the same time, I look at that and I think, how didn't they see. They quoted that gross line, but somehow didn't realize that by reusing the title, making a book with the exact same premise, they were continuing that same gross legacy.

Of course, I didn't realize either, not until just now, so I'm hardly in a position to cast judgement. 

I do sometimes think there's a kind of generational privilege that comes along with the language we use to discuss cultural appropriation these days. The young'uns don't entirely understand how much less accessible the world was 20 years ago. These days, if I were to give advice to a doppleganger of my younger self, who was just starting to develop an interest in East-Asian fantasy, I'd say - watch a variety of Wuxia movies on your various streaming services, ask respectful questions of people more familiar with the genre, seek out rpgs by East Asian creators, or at least those made with the aid of compensated sensitivity readers.

But in 2001, I don't think I'd have even known how to begin doing any of those things, even if a time-traveler had told me they were best practices. I would march down to the local library, open up the card catalogue (which, even at that late date was still mostly on cards) and just drawn a blank. The real reason I bought this book - it was what was on the shelf at the bookstore. My interest in Asian fantasy was shaped, from the very beginning, by cultural appropriation, and it's likely that even if I'd gone beyond the obvious, every library-driven deep dive would have been as well.

Which isn't meant as an excuse, just as a lens for understanding the book, Oriental Adventures. I don't think you can necessarily put it on a binary. I think it's a spectrum. A book about Asia, by white people, for white people . . . it can co-opt the culture, or it can carelessly toy with the culture, or it can be an ambassador for the culture. Young John Frazer doesn't even know which questions to ask, but someone older, better-read, more worldly, like a certain James Wyatt, backed by the resources of Wizards of the Coast, could ask those questions in my stead and then write the answers down in a book, and put that book on the shelf at B. Dalton's.

So is that what happened? Is that the book we got?

It's hard to say. I think it was the book's ambition, but then there's this bit from the introduction that struck me as somewhat insensitive:

In the meantime, a collectable card game somehow managed what generations of roleplaying games based on the fantasies of Asia never quite did: create a living world drawn from Asian history and legend that did not pretend to be history, never claimed to be accurate, and yet appealed to a larger and more vocal fan base than the original Oriental Adventures setting of Kara-Tur or historical Japan ever did.

He's talking about Legend of the Five Rings here, and I suspect he's just being generous with his praise, in celebration of the new corporate partnership, but "more popular than actual Japan," does not strike me as the sort of sentiment that's going to presage a respectful sharing of cultures.

My gut tells me that a lot of this book isn't actually an attempt at "Fantasy Asia" so much as a second-hand curation of previous attempts at Fantasy Asia. Like, how much of the book's necessary research was farmed out to the Legend of the Five Rings backstory? Not all of it, to be sure, because about half the monsters and classes are called out as non-compatible with Lo5R, so they must have come from somewhere, but at the same time, there's a carelessness here. You get something like the Wang-Liang, and that obviously comes from a primary or secondary source. Wikipedia tells me that it's a genuine word from Chinese folklore and it does refer to a specific type of monster, but that no one quite agrees on what it looks like. It's entirely plausible that someone flipped through a book about the monsters of East Asian legend and just D&D-ified a cool-looking entry for inclusion in this book.

But there's no interpretation going on here. It's just used in a completely superficial way. Like, every word you could find that was a synonym for "monster" gets transliterated and assigned stats, without any real consideration for what those words meant in their original context. Why do we get "hopping vampires," but also "Rokuro-Kubi" aka "long-necked demon?" 

The obvious answer is that this is just how D&D always does things. There was never any historical difference between an ogre and a troll or a ghost and a wraith or a goblin and a kobold, but that Monster Manual isn't going to fill itself. And that's a fair answer, but it immediately raises the follow-up question - if we're still doing the same basic thing in the same basic way, why do we need to go to Asia for that?

And that is where I think this book gets itself into trouble, re: cultural appropriation. Despite the protestation of the introduction, it never really makes a case for itself besides being "mysterious and exotic." 

I worry about this same issue in my own work and I try to draw my personal line by asking myself "am I learning something from this other culture or am I merely copying it without understanding?" And truthfully, I can't say I always fall on the right side of the line, but that's what I aim for. 

When I apply this same standard to Oriental Adventures, well, it automatically fails because of its title, but even granting a mulligan on that, I'm forced to consider the "Rewards" sidebar at the end of the "Campaign Design" chapter.

One common feature of the Dungeons & Dragons game causes problems to many Oriental Adventures players and DMs: the practice of looting the bodies of fallen foes. For members of Rokugan's noble class (including all samurai and shugenja characters), and for many people in lands based on historical Asian cultures, the idea of touching a corpse, let alone rummaging around on it for anything of value would be totally abhorrent.

Fun fact - looting the bodies of your fallen foes is technically a war crime. . . sort of. What I found online suggests that there are grey areas. Like, recovering fallen arms and armor, whether from friend or foe, is a practice that is as ancient as warfare itself, and for obvious reasons - it's useful for resupplying and it denies the enemy the chance to rearm from the corpses of the dead. By contrast, taking personal items or money from enemy corpses is frowned upon, but not actually against the rules, unless it's something like gold teeth, which would make identifying the body more difficult. Further contrasted with taking items from a civilian corpse, which is straight-up a violation of the Geneva convention.

And if you're learning from Asian cultures, you're going to be asking yourself, "what was it about warfare in China, Korea, and Japan that made things different" and, of course, the answer is "absolutely nothing." The fact that there are rules against it is proof that it actually happened. No one would say "it's wrong to loot the dead" if people weren't out there looting the dead.

It's something I noticed all the way back with The Complete Ninja's Handbook, when the Japanese rules about social class were taken extremely seriously, but somehow "a rigidly hierarchical society where social mobility is rare and most peoples' lives are determined by the circumstances of their birth" didn't trigger any familiarity with medieval Europe at all. It's like the authors of these books don't even understand their own ancestors.

What's really going on in "standard" D&D is that, of course, everyone understands that the European feudal system was a rigid system of oppression, but there's no real reason to compromise the fun of our fantasy roleplaying game by deferring to the social opinions of some long-dead Earl. And I can't help thinking that if these authors actually understood Asia, they would offer it the same sort of grace.

Which is a strike against "ambassador" and a step towards "co-opting." The other big evidence - honor.

Full disclosure - this is a subject I don't really understand. However, I watched the Asians Represent Podcast stream of both the original Oriental Adventures and the Al-Qadim book and the negative reactions towards "honor" as an orientalist trope were immediate, visceral, and unanimous, so I have to figure that this issue isn't new, that even in 2001, this is a complaint that would have reached your ears, if you were setting out to rewrite Oriental Adventures.

What I can say, even without being an expert in orientalism and the use of "honor" as an othering trope is that this book's use of honor is fucking ridiculous. D&D already has a weird, arbitrary mechanic to represent ones personal code and adherence to society's rules - it's called the alignment system, and here's the sidebar has to say about it:

"In comparison to the standard Dungeons & Dragons game, alignment is somewhat less important. In many Oriental Adventures campaigns, a person's ethical code is summed up in the idea of honor rather than notions of good or evil, law or chaos."

Because why even bother taking five damned seconds to think about the silly rules of your own silly game? That maybe there might be some cultural differences between what different people think of as "lawful," but there's absolutely no reason to go inventing a new term that means essentially the same thing. Like somehow it's surprising to you that someone who is a team player, victorious in battle, well-dressed, and always keeps their word has a better reputation than someone who presents themselves as a criminal or a loser. Ah, yes "committing treason" - no way to put that on the alignment grid.

What's especially weird is that this version of the book is in some ways better than the 1e version, because at least it doesn't have a numerical list that assigns PCs a set "honor value" based on a bunch of context-less actions or events, but it still has "honorable" and "dishonorable" weapons that deal extra damage based on a character's honor status. Maybe you're just supposed to estimate.

Although, the worst example of "honor" comes from the Rokugan setting chapter: 

"A heimin [ed note: "commoner"] who compromises a samurai's honor by being rude or insubordinate can expect to be killed on the spot, and the samurai faces no legal consequences for preserving his honor in this way."

That's not a sentence you write about human beings. It's a sentence you write about space aliens. What you're talking about is aristocratic bullies going around committing profound injustices because their fragile pride demands violence as an answer to even slight inconveniences, and they get away with it because they're part of an enabling system that so prizes the power to commit violence that they're willing to let fragile bullies get away with whatever they want, so long as the victims are of a subaltern class. And it kind of raises problematic issues, because saying "that's fucked up and shouldn't be allowed" does fall into the Orientalist trope of "eastern tyranny," but at the same time, you still have the option of just not including it at all, like you do for European fantasy, which could just as easily justify it.

Anyway, I've been writing for a long time now, so I think I should start wrapping up. My final verdict on this book that I've decided doesn't need to be named anymore: death is a blessing, it comes even for tyrants. Which is to say, it's a relic of a different time, and I'm not inclined to mourn that its time has passed. It does get me thinking that I've never really encountered a good example of East Asian fantasy roleplaying, and maybe that's something that's now easily rectified. 

Ukss Contribution: As some of you may have figured out, the purpose of this final section isn't really to mine material for my weird private rpg setting. The purpose is to end each post on a positive note, by calling out something specific that delighted me. That's why I don't take contributions from evil books - because I mean this section as a respectful tribute, and sometimes I very conspicuously don't want to pay my respects.

But that's also why I try to keep a pretty high bar for what I consider "evil." It's got to have a combination of harmfulness, carelessness, and callousness that indicates the book has no redeeming qualities. And if I'm speaking from the heart, I don't think this book qualifies. I think it was made with good intentions, and not quite enough care. From my position in 2023, they should have taken more, but I know that in 2001, it completely went over my head. It's on the bubble, but in acknowledgment of the fact that I once really loved this book, and I can still see what I used to love about it, I'm going to pick something.

Smoke ladder. It's a spell. It creates a ladder made of smoke. You can climb up it. When the spell ends, the ladder drifts away on the wind. Magic that looks like a cartoon is my favorite kind of magic.

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